Markku Larjavaara of the Finnish Forest Research Institute comments on his recent article, “Democratic less-developed countries cause global deforestation.”
These observations piqued my interest and led me to analyze forest area change relative to level of democracy. Forest area change from 2000 to 2005, according to the FAO, plotted against three independent democracy indices weighted with the forest area, showed a very clear decreasing trend for the up to 137 developing countries for which data was available. Developing and democratic countries with a large forest area such as Brazil and Indonesia were losing their forests rapidly while non-democratic China and Vietnam were experiencing an even faster change, but in the opposite direction. Much later, when I was preparing a manuscript to report my findings to the International Forestry Review, I found that the FAO had published a new dataset and that the patterns remained clear for the 2000-2010 period, although they were less apparent than for the shorter 2000-2005 period.
Is democracy bad for forests, or could my findings be explained in another way? The patterns are so clear that it is practically impossible that they would have been caused only by chance. Could it be that the non-democratic governments would more likely forge their forest area statistics than the democratic ones? This is certainly possible, but as the interest is in forest area change and not in forest area per se, this alternative explanation is very unlikely. It’s much more likely that democratic developing countries were actually losing their forests and that non-democratic countries were gaining more forest over last decade. Was this really caused by democracy itself or is the correlation without causality?
Scholars have pointed out many ways that democracy benefits the environment. Non-democratic leaders benefit from unsustainable exploitation more than their people do, whereas democracies allow environmental activism, which can influence policy directly, or indirectly via public awareness, which is also enhanced by the free press. In addition, it has been claimed that democratic leaders interact more with scientists and the leaders of other countries to facilitate international solutions to environmental problems. There seem to be so many ways in which democracy should lead to an increasing forest area. However, my findings were the opposite: more democratic countries had a more negative forest area trend. Therefore, something else is needed to explain these results.
It often takes decades before the benefits of reforestation projects outweigh the costs. Could it be that non-democratic leaders have more information and can understand the consequences of forest area change over large spatial and temporal scales better than the poorly educated voters in democratic countries can? Non-democratic governments are potentially more stable than democratic ones, since democratic leaders need to make sure that voters are satisfied before the next elections. My guess is that there is a causal link and democracy really does cause deforestation relative to non-democracy, but whether the new or conserved forests in a non-democracy make people happy is another question.
 Larjavaara, M. 2012. Democratic less-developed countries cause global deforestation. International Forestry Review Vol.14: 299-313.